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The Indian artist challenging ‘dirty taboos’ on Instagram

Feb 18

In an illustration on Instagram, a young woman perched on the arm of a bench can be seen letting out a fart. The Indian artist behind the sketch, Kaviya Ilango, speaks to the BBC’s Krutika Pathi about the “dirty taboos” that inspire her.

“People generally advise you not to air your dirty laundry in public, but I am convinced that art can be a powerful medium for questioning stereotypes,” says Ms Ilango who has garnered attention on the social media platform for her satirical and poignant depictions of what she calls “millennial problems”.

She wants her art to cut through crowded social media feeds. She wants to go beyond their “rose-tinted glasses” – think airbrushed selfies and exotic vacation check-ins – to reach intimate and difficult subjects.

Most of her illustrations feature brown-skinned women with unshaven legs and arms – a deliberate choice to highlight insecurities around body image peddled by the beauty industry and even social media.

In one such sketch, a woman poses while multiple red lines draw attention to various parts of her body – while one of them points to her thighs, the text reads, “Beyonce’s thighs” and is accompanied by a thumbs down emoji.

“I personally believe the more unbiased, objective conversations we have about such ‘dirty’ topics, the more normalized they become in society.” Sometimes, this includes “whimsical taboos”, she says, like farting, but she also touches upon more vexing and personal issues like loneliness and mental illness.

“Things like grief and loss, depression and isolation or any kind of addiction – these are all topics we still feel highly uncomfortable discussing in the open,” she says.

Her project – #100daysofdirtylaundry – is an honest look at relatable problems, ranging from menstrual cycles to manic Netflix binges and constant distraction driven by social media. “I initially intended this project to be a parody of the 100 days challenges that were making waves on social media,” she says.

While much of her work is humorous or sardonic, it also reflects the anxiety of a generation that she describes as “forever-online”.

In her captions, she articulates a feeling of being trapped within mobile phones and social media feeds, where incessant scrolling feels almost claustrophobic.

“Our generation’s mode of dealing with such dark ‘millennial’ issues has mostly been through humour – through memes, stand up comedy, satire art and funny Facebook pages,” she says, adding that often it is alternate forms of media such as podcasts, web series and blogs that attempt to deal with these problems.

Mainstream media in India, she says, is still “playing catch up” as sensitive issues like mental illness are commonly stereotyped and ridiculed.

“They’re not given the right treatment they deserve.”

For Ms Ilango, social media is both a catalyst for her work – as many of her sketches draw from the experience of being online – and also an important platform. “For all the drawbacks of it being a tool for vanity and validation, it is a very powerful medium that brings together shared experiences.”

Although she has been asked why she focuses on the “negative aspects of life”, she says the overall response to her work has been positive.

“I have had so many virtual strangers reach out to say they relate to my art, and it makes you realise that the range of emotions and experiences most people go through is pretty much the same.”


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